How Many Children is Too Many?
SHOULD FAMILIES limit the number of babies they have according to their means? The British culture minister, Jeremy Hunt, raised something of a storm over the past few days by suggesting just that: “Don’t have children unless you can pay for them.”…
In a sense, Jeremy Hunt was only articulating a traditional middle-class view of family life. Even before birth control became known, or considered acceptable (it wasn’t fully accepted, even for married couples, until 1958 by the Church of England) middle-class couples were restricting family size, by deferring marriage, and practising some element of marital restraint….
[But in places like] Ringsend, then a strong working-class community, families always seemed to be teeming. In those little two-up, two-down terraced houses between the bottle factory and the gas works, families of 10, 12 and 14 children were raised. And often very successfully raised. Ringsend was a genuine working-class community; that is, most families were in work. You didn’t hear of people lolling around on benefits. There wasn’t much in the way of benefits, and the work ethic was genuinely esteemed.
But there was also, evidently, a robust and healthy marital sex life, reflecting the Italian saying that the conjugal bed is “the poor man’s opera.”
This picture of a more inhibited bourgeoisie in contrast to easier working-class conjugality was common. George Orwell observed it in his researches for ‘The Road to Wigan Pier.’ Middle-class couples would wait, save, and defer marriage, until they could afford a home, and afford to bring children into the world. Whereas working-class youngsters started their sex life earlier, accepted that babies would follow marriage, and moved in with the in-laws until they could get on a housing list.
So what’s so shocking about a British minister saying what middle-class people have privately believed for ages? What makes it controversial is that the context has changed….
[T]here is the unspoken but well understood question of immigration, and the widespread fear, amply borne out by a visit to a maternity ward, that immigrant mothers are more fertile than mothers from the host community. A Conservative minister giving signals about making responsible choices in fertility might be perceived as trying to rein in all those fertile Bangladeshis, Pakistanis and Somalis (who vote Labour anyway).Thirdly, there is social anxiety about the ‘feckless underclass’, who allegedly go about producing endless progeny just for the state benefits involved. Huge efforts are made to halt teenage pregnancy, with only patchy results. As the sociologist Charles Murray has observed, sex is fun and babies are sweet, and you get housed when you have one, so what’s not to like — in a teenager’s short-term thinking?…
Birth control pioneers such as Marie Stopes didn’t plan for things to turn out like this. The feckless underclass were supposed to be the ones reducing their fertility (preferably sterilised altogether, according to Stopes’s eugenics), while the intellectual elite were supposed to be the ones breeding. The opposite has happened. Graduates are having abortions, while the [feckless and their] baby-mothers go on merrily producing babies.
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